Heavyweight boxing champion Shane Cameron steps up to fight Parkinson's disease

Shane has teamed up with rehab therapist Lisa Gombinsky Roach to run a non-contact boxing programme that helps fight Parkinson's disease.

By Julie Jacobson
It's an unlikely pairing. She's a Canadian-born rehab therapist, he's a former New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion and reality TV star.
But together Lisa Gombinsky Roach, nickname Moose Jockey, and Shane Cameron, aka Mountain Warrior, are the team behind Counterpunch Parkinson's, a non-contact boxing programme aimed at fighting the crippling neurodegenerative disease that affects one in 500 of us.
The concept – based on a similar US programme – was hatched over a cup of coffee, with a paper napkin for a notepad. At the time, Lisa, a personal trainer who specialises in exercise for people with motor disorders, was running a pilot class out of an Auckland YMCA.
"If you'd told me four years ago that I'd be hanging out with New Zealand's heavyweight boxers, I wouldn't have believed it," the 44-year-old says with a laugh. "But I was looking for a boxing space and Shane's gym was just around the corner."
She had no idea who the boxing champ was. In fact, she'd wondered who the guy was who'd named a gym after himself.
She sent him an email and a video that showed how boxing was helping her Parkinson's class.
"And then he just kind of rocked up to my little class in the 'Y' one day, grabbed a pair of focus mitts, jumped in and hung out with us.
"He saw what I saw," she says. "How putting on gloves changes people, how they somehow transform."
Lisa introduced boxing classes for people with Parkinson's to New Zealand, and roped in heavyweight champ and gym owner Shane to help.
Counterpunch Parkinson's now offers classes in more than 15 locations around New Zealand, with experienced coaches who are taught boxing techniques alongside a "Parkinson's 101" session, in which they're advised on the neurological and physical issues faced by those with the disease and the best way to work with them.
Shane (41), who made his professional boxing debut in 2002 and almost took out the title in last month's Celebrity Treasure Island, says Lisa sold him on the benefits of boxing for people with Parkinson's.
Supporting her was a no-brainer, he reckons, and several other top-name boxers, including Hamilton's David Nyika (whose granddad was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2012) and Olympian Alexis Pritchard, also jumped on board.
Shane says supporting Lisa's cause was a no-brainer.
Seeing the joy on participants' faces was particularly rewarding, Shane says.
"We are a family-friendly inclusive gym and literally have all ages in here from seven to 70. The Parkinson's group bring another dimension to the gym. They know how to have fun while they train!
"The most striking thing is their positive can-do attitude and their relentless commitment to training. They are here every week, train hard and focus on what they can do, not what they can't.
"We could all certainly learn a thing or two from them."
This can-do attitude is something Lisa stresses from the outset.
Where once people with chronic neurological conditions were told to prepare for life in a wheelchair, exercise has now been shown to have significant benefits, particularly when done at a high intensity.
"For people with Parkinson's, exercise is as important as medication, if not more so, and that's now accepted in literature around the world," explains Lisa.
"What we are doing is creating an environment where at a neurological level we're giving the brain the best chance, but we're also trying to prevent some of the secondary changes that happen when people stop moving around and they become sedentary."
And there are enormous social benefits, she says.
"Many people with Parkinson's often don't have an outlet for their frustrations. They are alone with what feels like a terrible disease that's slowly taking bits of their lives away, over time.
"Our boxers don't see themselves as poor little sick ladies or men who need to be mollycoddled. They are being proactive, they are with other people, they have community.They are fighters."
Betsy has attended classes since she was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2016.
The boxers are encouraged to choose a "fighting" name, whether it's after their favourite pub (Rusty Pelican), a movie hero (Dave the Dude from The Big Lebowski) or a personality trait (Margie the Menace).
Betsy Hastie, who turns 80 on (appropriately) Boxing Day, calls herself the Tartan Terror in a nod to her Scottish heritage. She's attended Monday afternoon classes since she was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2016 and read about how exercise can slow the progression of the disease.
"I absolutely love it," she says. "We can punch that bag and not hurt anybody. It keeps me fit, it gets me up and going, and the camaraderie is just wonderful."
As well as boxing, which helps with agility, strength and co-ordination, classes address other motor issues such as balance, stiffness, speech and tremor.
Every member, even those in wheelchairs, is taught how to prevent falls and how to pick themselves up off the floor if they do fall.
And yes, it can definitely get hot and sweaty, says Lisa, laughing.
"Some of our boxers are in better shape than I am. They punch bloody hard. It's not like they're just joking around with a balloon.
"You wouldn't necessarily see any difference between my boxers and a mainstream box-fit class. They are up and down doing burpees with the best of them!"
Johnny is currently New Zealand's only Counterpunch coach who has Parkinson's.
Johnny "Rock Star" Boyle is a solo dad whose university nickname has stuck.
Now 52, the former rocker had noticed a tremor two years prior to his diagnosis at 49 but "like many men, I thought if I ignored it, it would go away".
He signed up for one, then two, weekly boxing class after reading about the results Rock Steady Boxing was getting in the US, and in February last year he became Counterpunch's first coach with Parkinson's.
The benefits have been huge, he says. With classes focused on teaching people to "out-think" the disease, he now moves better, is more flexible and has better balance.
"My physical symptoms were worse when I started Counterpunch than now, more than two years later."
The classes have helped more than just his body.
"The mental and physical struggles that people with Parkinson's face can cut us off from our local communities and society. Meeting others to share stories of our daily trials and struggles and feeling part of a community of similar people does wonders.
"Diagnosis isn't the end of our lives but the start of a new chapter. The hardest thing we have to do is come to terms with it and approach it with positivity. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I'm more positive and I feel I have more direction than I did before diagnosis."

read more from